Tag Archives: “Sonny’s Blues”

DAN MORGENSTERN REMEMBERS JAMES BALDWIN (September 29, 2017)

I first had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Dan Morgenstern at his Upper West Side apartment in March 2017, and every few months we’ve done it again.  In an interview where he’d spoken of Robert Clairmont, he casually said, “Oh, that’s where I met Jimmy Baldwin,” and I felt like someone who finds a treasure chest in the middle of the living room, and made a note to ask Dan about Baldwin at a future meeting.  Here’s what Dan recalled. . . seventy years later.

Characteristically, because Dan’s world is not narrow, we hear about Dan’s father, the novelist Soma Morgenstern, “The March of Time,” Gordon Clark(e) [I’ve been unable to find out more about this man and mentor, thus the ambivalent spelling], Alonzo Levister, Baldwin’s famous story “Sonny’s Blues,” Louis Armstrong, Ralph Ellison, the Newport Jazz Festival, and even “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“Remarkable” is an understatement.  We owe our friend and hero Dan more than this page could say.

And some appropriate music from the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival:

May your happiness increase!

OFFENSIVE YET ENTHRALLING

Courtesy of Hans Koert’s “Keep Swinging” blog, here is a 1943 Merrie Melodies cartoon, “TIN PAN ALLEY CATS.”  It offers a buffet of demeaning racial stereotypes and is thus not available on American DVD collections.  It is shocking that such caricatures could be shown in public in America so late in our history, although not terribly surprising.

But after I got through being offended, I was amused — subversively tickled.  And I don’t know: does it denigrate or slyly celebrate Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Slam Stewart, Leo Watson, African-American night life and religious fervor, two sides of the same coin?  Add in sideswipes at Al Jolson, blackface, the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, and Fats’s own 1942 “By the Light of the Si;very Moon” for good measure.  Then there’s the idea that jazz leads straight to Hell.

This cartoon was surely Caucasian Middle America’s idea of Blackness — exuberant, uncontrolled, foolish, Godless.  But joyous, too.  And we note that so much of the cartoon’s seven-plus minutes are given over to a tut-tut and tsk-tsk depiction of Hot and Naughty . . . . with much less attention paid to old-time-religion.  I doubt that James Baldwin had ever seen this, but doesn’t it noisily depict the conflict between Sacred and Profane that emerges again in his story “Sonny’s Blues”?

As Kevin Dorn once pointed out to me, the Bad Night Life portrayed in the Fallen World segment of “It’s A Wonderful Life” still seems reasonably appealing, even when you consider the charms of Goodness, friends, family, and Donna Reed.

One never knows, DO ONE?